In 1992, the United States was feeling externally confident. It was the first full year in which the Cold War was a thing of the past and it was the era in which George H.W. Bush declared a “new world order” while Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history”. Yet internally, many in the US had felt that while Washington may have “won” the Cold War, internal decline was becoming inevitable.
This of course was also the era of Ross Perot’s early Trump style populism that forewarned of major economic decline. Politically, it was the era in which in spite of overseeing the collapse of the USSR, George H.W. Bush failed to win re-election. 1992 specifically was the year in which the dialogue free documentary film Baraka was released by US filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson. Looking at the film with 2019 spectacles makes for an interesting viewing.
The film is in many ways a paradox. The Todd-AO 70mm camera technology used to make the film dated back to the 1950s, a period in which the US was the unambiguous technological innovator in the world. Todd-AO was in fact one such exciting invention to come out of that era.
But after the early 1970s, in spite of its superior quality, the costs of filming in Todd-AO and related large formats resulted in Hollywood more or less turning its back on one of its finest technical achievements. Thus, the makers of Baraka helped to briefly revive a format that reminded the world of an age of supreme American confidence.
But the film itself was the opposite of a flag waving nostalgia trip. The film juxtaposed holy sites and places of natural beauty from around the world with industrialised first world nations that were portrayed as polluting, soulless and socially mechanistic. Most interestingly, urbanised and semi-urbanised parts of the developing world, particularly those in Asia were filmed in such a way that portrayed a supreme suffering of the people who were living under cold “dictatorships”.
In many ways, Baraka had a simple however undefined narrative: ‘The first world has wealth but has lost its way when it comes to spiritual enlightenment and environmental concerns. Meanwhile, the third world is filled both with pre-industrial beauty and with suffering derived from poverty and dictatorial oppression”.
The filmmakers were aware of the intellectual and philosophical shortcomings of such a narrative and consciously promoted the film as one without a singular message. As such, when viewed today, the film can be deeply appreciated for its incredibly beautiful 70mm cinematography which itself is a technological throwback to a 1950s that in this sense was very ahead of its time. But how has the narrative aged?
The narrative that the filmmakers claimed to have wanted to avoid has aged poorly. Although the first world factories making bulky computers and CRT televisions now look remarkably obsolete, many of the third world locations in the film have now become highly developed and would scarcely seek publicity from Americans with 1950s era cameras making “pity porn” about the ‘underdeveloped and miserable third world’. Since the film was made, many of the countries in Asia have moved far beyond a post-Cold War malaise that even in 1992 was exaggerated by the filmmakers for dramatic effect.
At the same time, the items that the filmmakers showed in what was in 1992 a fairly geographically limited first world, have scarcely changed. While the technology made in first world factories has evolved since 1992, little else has. By contrast, many of the Asian countries visited in the film have become highly developed and look nothing like they did in the early 1990s. These ‘desolate and depressed dictatorships” are now Asian tigers that have advanced rapidly over the last twenty-seven years.
In this sense, when viewing Baraka in 2019, apart from the overall cinematic beauty, it helps to understand that the film is a contemporary time capsule that when contrasted with today, can show a view just how much Asia has changed while much of the first world has in fact remained the same.
While the filmmakers have been accused of imparting a post-colonial attitude towards the third world which tried to use beautiful images to simplify manifold political realities, the real lesson learnt from the film is how far much of Asia has moved ahead in such a comparatively brief period in time.